Napoli – Lazio Roma: Sarri Remains The Maradona’s Kryptonite (1-2)

At the first major hurdle at the helm of the Champions, Rudi Garcia struggled to make a lasting impression. Lazio Roma flashed their game plan in the first half and brutally showcased Napoli’s off-ball deficiencies for all to see. Garcia has some problems to fix.  

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

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On the Neapolitan coronation parade, former coach Maurizio Sarri was popping balloons and flicking his cigarette butts over the barricades. It was Lazio who had made sure they didn’t go unbeaten at the Maradona for an entire season, an executed defensive game plan that congested the center of the field and pressed heavily on Napoli’s fullbacks.

However, the first two games of the season brought a different feeling to the champions versus the runners-up. Napoli reminded us why they finished sixteen points ahead of anybody else last season; the core of the squad (Min-jae Kim the only major sale) and the system have remained, which equates to Victor Osimhen scoring goals.

Lazio would hope to rekindle the same performance back in March, but surprise defeats to Lecce and Genoa led them to the relegation zone at the dawn of September. Sergej Milinković-Savić departed the club after eight years: Daichi Kamada and Mattéo Guendouzi add good ability to their midfield, but replacing his attacking and defensive contributions would always be a difficult task. 

Garcia made just one change to his team, from their 2-0 win over Sassuolo. Giacomo Raspadori, who had two games on the left of the front three, dropped out for Khvicha Kvaratshkelia who had returned to full fitness.

Sarri also made a single change to his 4-3-3 team. Manuel Lazzari was replaced by former Napoli fullback Elseid Hysaj. 

More than one way to skin a cat

Napoli raced out of the blocks, perhaps a little faster than they usually do in their games. Facing off in their respective structures, Napoli found a few more methods than their previous outing against Lazio, an intensity set by their risky off-ball approach.

Piotr Zieliński pushed forward to make a 4-4-2 defensive shape for Napoli, as they pressed high in the Lazio box. This stopped Sarri’s team from being able to buildup; Stanislav Lobotka followed Danilo Cataldi, and then the backward pass was able to force uncomfortable distribution from that side. Ivan Provedel’s kicks became longer, and although Lazio span into the occasional counter, it was Napoli who had control in the first half hour.

4th minute: Lobotka and Zieliński provided pressure on a heavy Cataldi touch. Napoli pressed high in a 4-4-2 formation, a risky approach but one that built momentum for the hosts in the first half hour of the game.

Lazio sat in their 4-5-1 medium block without the high engagement, Lobotka also played a key role in possession for Napoli, as he situationally dropped between the two center backs. This saw the fullbacks play higher with varied degrees of success. As Luis Alberto or Daichi Kamada stepped out to press, the wingers had to remain narrow to keep central compactness. This helped Giovanni Di Lorenzo make the third man runs in the right halfspace, Matteo Politano dragging Hysaj out and space opening behind the fullback for Di Lorenzo to sprint into.

Mathías Olivera also made aggressive off-ball runs, but these came from deeper positions into more crowded central areas. Kvaratskhelia and Zieliński had to combine further away from the goal as a result, although Kvaratskhelia could still slalom away from bodies in impressive fashion, he could have benefitted from more space being opened up down the left side of their attack.

It’s not uncommon to see Napoli passmaps like this – but delve a little closer. Not much center midfield interaction between each other and wingers receive closer to the halfway line than the penalty area.

Nevertheless, Napoli produced nine attempts in the opening half hour and although they had controlled the game in this period, their shot quality was poor. These attempts stemmed from spontaneous moments from more direct play or loose Lazio passes, or from passing sequences that had ran its course and a hopeful shot taken from the edge of the area. Kvaratskhelia produced the most dangerous efforts from this collection, a corner was cleared and the Georgian won the ground duel against Mattia Zaccagni. A powerful strike was rising but a big glove from Provedel denied a wonderful ranged effort from going in.

Defining moments in a matter of minutes

Napoli may have dictated but sustaining momentum was difficult, with such risky high positioning from its midfield out of possession. Olivera’s aggressiveness was also reflected in defensive situations, something that could spark Lazio from circulation into attack. Kamada passed back to Cataldi and a lobbed pass was made to the free Felipe Anderson, as Olivera stepped forward. The initial phase was stumped, Olivera and Juan Jesus kept Anderson wide and Frank Anguissa marked the space just in front of the six-yard box. Yet Luis Alberto was standing just a meter away from the goalkeeper and completely onside. The ball squirmed to him and a creative backheel opened the scoring for Lazio.

The hosts immediately responded, Nicolò Casale denied Osimhen from connecting with a cross, but Zieliński received on the edge of the area. A deflection mistepped Provedel and the ball bounced into the opposite corner of the goal.

Towards the end of the first half, the game became more transitional. Napoli had good access on the left side of the field, but they had lost momentum in their buildup play as attacks sped up and now their defensive positioning in their backline became more fragmented. As Lobotka and Anguissa were encouraged to press high, this led to Jesus or Amir Rrahmani following Ciro Immobile. Lose the duel and Lazio had an overload on the transition, with options to spread the play. Lazio wasn’t getting shots off just yet, but the template was there to break the hosts.

39th minute: Although not the cleanest of connections, Lazio could still create transitional moments from balls towards the center circle, as Napoli’s midfield failed to support its center-backs, who themselves were positioned poorly to suppress the opposition attack.

A backline unravels

The end-to-end action continued into the second half: as Zieliński tested the goalkeepers’ gloves at one end, Lazio countered, Alberto was in space underneath Immobile and Alex Meret had to rush out of his goal, although his fellow countryman had moved in an offside position.

Lazio smelt blood, their defensive block was higher but not engaging in the press. Napoli could stay flexible and Lazio could wait for their fullbacks to move way ahead of the ball to engage. Alas, a sloppy pass from Zieliński sparked Anderson back into life and space was available to him laterally. Once again, Alberto was free underneath Immobile and as Di Lorenzo stepped inward, Alberto dummied and Kamada moved vertically into the other side. Kamada’s low strike beat the goalkeeper and even with forty minutes left, Napoli failed to recapture any of the early momentum that they had generated.

51st minute: Buildup to Lazio’s second goal. After Zieliński was dispossessed, Anderson was able to carry, Alberto was left free to receive and Kamada was able to vertically move towards the other side. Check out the positioning of Lobotka and Olivera within this phase.

Garcia’s team held even more possession than they did in the first half, but as the game progressed, more and more space was left in front of the center-backs, with a distorted backline. Alberto was continuously left free on the counter with Jesus and Rrahmani still unable to find a solution. One tried to step as the other marked Immobile, but it always led to both trying to frantically recover and a makeshift defensive line working backwards towards its own goal.

Garcia tried to make his attack more narrow. Kvaratskhelia came off for Raspadori and Politano was later replaced by new signing Jesper Lindstrøm. However, this played more into Lazio’s hands: they remained in their 4-5-1 medium block, which kept its central compactness, forced Napoli outwards and could win the ball back in wide areas to counterattack.

Lazio brutally exposed the poor positioning of Napoli’s backline as the hosts attempted to press. Hysaj broke lines to find Anderson, who had moved on the left side. As Rrahmani followed Immobile, substitute Mário Rui was positioned on the halfway line, against a two-versus-one and with Guendouzi completely free in the center of the field. Zaccagni was put through to finish, but the offside flag saved Napoli’s blushes.

Lazio’s passmap shows how high Luis Alberto was able to get the ball on the transition, and just how much the wingers were able to get on the ball too.

A few minutes later, protection in front of the center-backs was missing again off a reset from a clearance. A one-two from Alberto and Anderson took the ball around Anguissa, and although both Di Lorenzo and Jesus intervened, Guendouzi was free once again. He put the ball in the net, but once again an offside ruling kept Napoli in the game. Garcia threw Giovanni Simeone on the field, which created a narrow 4-2-2-2 formation, but whereas a Spalletti team would have kept Lazio pinned in their half and produced late, high-quality chances, this version of Napoli had already fizzled out.


The first alarm bell has rung, surrounding Garcia with this Napoli team. Keeping its fluidity on the ball whilst stamping out space on defensive transitions is a difficult coaching task, this team under Spalletti wasn’t as open as they were throughout this game. Of course, Min-jae was a huge reason for this, but Napoli also met this with long spells of control: something that Garcia’s team struggled to inflict at Frosinone and even more so against Lazio.

Napoli has time to reassert themselves in these periods of play, but if other creators such as Luis Alberto get as much time on the ball, with as much space, then you can expect more damaging results to occur. Lazio has found the perfect formula at the Maradona, Sarri will need to find another when he returns to another former club after the international break, against Juventus.

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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